Interested in whole muscle curing? In Italy, the term for salted and dry-cured meats (including whole muscles) is “Salumi.” This tutorial gives basic instructions that can be used to turn any whole muscle piece of meat into a salumi masterpiece. You can use this tutorial to make prosciutto, or coppa, or breseola, or pancetta, or any other dry cured delicacy you desire.
Proper technique is crucial to your success. This cannot be overstated. Read and familiarize yourself with all parts of the following instructions before you begin work on your dry-cured meats. This tutorial will describe the general techniques for dry curing whole muscles. If you are interested in making dry-cured, fermented sausages, check out this tutorial.
Handling of Meat
This is a war of bacteria, and you want to start out with as little “bad” bacteria as possible. Properly fermented meats will promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, and discourage the growth of pathogenic or food-spoilage bacteria. The best way to kick start success is to keep your meat cold. Bacteria multiplies rapidly at high temperatures, doubling in as little as two hours if left at room temperature. For this reason, be sure to thaw meats in the refrigerator (rather than at room temperature). Prepare meat right away (you don’t want it sitting around, risking spoilage). If you will be butchering an animal yourself, do so in the fall rather than in the summer, when temperatures are cooler. And of course, it goes without saying that all of your equipment should be clean and sanitized before you begin. Sanitize your counter, grinder, stuffer, cutting board, knives, etc. with a bleach (or other sanitizing) solution before you begin.
A note on trichinosis. Though rare, some animals may be infected by the trichinella worm. This is not a common issue, though you may want to take precaution, particularly with wild game, and especially with bear meat. Simply freezing your meat prior to use will ensure its safety. Meat can be frozen for two to three weeks prior to dry curing. (As a side note, freezing does not kill bacteria, though it will keep levels of bacteria dormant at such low temperatures).
To Dry Cure Whole Muscles
In many ways, dry-cured whole muscles of meat are simpler to prepare than dry-cured sausages. They do not require as much equipment (no meat grinders or sausage stuffers), and they are often made with fewer spices. What they do require, however, is time, and lots of it. A dry-cured ham will take months, sometimes up to two years to finish drying.
The steps to dry-curing a whole muscle are outlined below. This method can be used to cure just about any cut of meat. Traditionally, the pig is used, but you can dry-cure beef or venison or other game animals successfully and deliciously. Different cuts of meat will afford different flavor profiles, but the general method of dry-curing is almost universal. The difference, for example, between a prosciutto and a coppa has more to do with the type of meat used (ham vs. neck) rather than the method. As always, choose meat from a quality animal to create a product with the greatest flavor.
Step 1: Preparing the Meat
Remove any silverskin from the meat. Trim off any flaps of meat or fat to create a smooth surface. If dry-curing beef or venison, you may wish to choose a lean cut and/or trim away any excess fat (fat from these animals is not as tasty as from a pig). If using the ham, you will want to massage out any extra blood that may be left in the animal. If you have the option of keeping the skin on the animal, you may wish to do so. Examples of cuts that might include skin would be the ham (for prosciutto), pork belly (for pancetta) or jowl (for guanciale). Weigh the meat and record this value.
Step 2: The Cure
The meat is next packed with salt, pepper, and additional spices (if desired), and then refrigerated for several days.
When whole muscles are dry-cured, there is less risk of botulism, as the interior of the meat never has a chance to be exposed to botulism spores in the air (unlike the ground meat in sausages). For this reason, pink salt is optional. Nevertheless, you may feel more comfortable adding it for assured safety at a percentage of 0.25% (an explanation for how to calculate this amount will be given in just a moment).
There are two recommended ways to apply the salt and seasonings:
- The equilibrium method is to measure out salt at 2.75-3.5% of the weight of the muscle (and add 0.25% Cure #2 if desired) and rub into the muscle, covering every surface evenly. Add spices as well and rub into muscle. Pepper may be added at about 0.10% of the weight of the muscle. Place in a sealed bag or container and refrigerate to cure. This method is preferable in most cases, as the salt is measured proportional to the amount of meat, and it is most likely to reach the proper level of cure.
- The salt-box method method is best used for the largest cuts of meat (such as the ham) or those that are bone-in. Pour a quantity of salt into a container. If you wish to add Cure #2, add it to the salt box as a ratio of 1:14 by mass (cure #2 to table salt). Add the muscle you wish to cure, and pack salt around it until it is completely covered. Pay special attention to any areas around the bone, being sure to pack the salt in completely. Then cover and refrigerate.
For large muscles (or those that are bone-in), weigh down the meat in the refrigerator with 5-15 pounds. This will help push out any extra moisture. You can use almost anything you like: a cast-iron pan makes a good weight. As the meat cures, liquid will be expelled. Make sure to rotate the meat several times during the curing time so that salt and moisture are evenly distributed.
Curing times are approximate. Aim for about 1 day for every 1000 g of meat you are curing. Meats that are thick may take longer. The meat should feel firm and dense when it is done. If not, place it back in the refrigerator and let it cure for another few days. If in doubt, leave it in the cure for a few more days. Your meat should lose about 15% of its weight due to water loss. If you are using the equilibrium method of curing (the first curing method outlined above), there is the least risk of over-salting your meat during the curing time.
When you feel the meat has cured for a long enough time, remove from the refrigerator and thoroughly rinse off any surface salt. You may choose to add a final rinse of wine for flavor. Pat dry.
A note on leftover salt: Do not be tempted to re-use any cure that has touched raw meat. If it was in your salt box when you salted the meat, throw it out.
A note on calculating salt amounts: The salt is given, above, as a percentage of the total mass of meat. For example, if you wish to measure out 3% salt, you will add 3 g of salt for every 100 g of meat. So if you have 2200 g of total meat to dry-cure (as an example), you would multiply the weight of the meat (2200 g) by the percentage of salt (3) and divide by 100 to determine the amount of salt to add:
2200g meat x (3g salt)/(100g meat) = 66 g salt
If you wish to calculate the amount of cure #2 to add to this same piece of meat, you would multiply the mass of the meat by 0.25%:
2200g meat x (0.25g cure #2)/(100g meat) =5.5 g cure #2
Step 3: Add Casings
The drying of the meat may be met with more success if you have some type of casing to cover it. This is optional, but helpful especially if you have a larger cut of meat to cure. If the meat still has skin intact, this will act as a protective barrier. For other cuts of meat, you may wish to consider encasing it in a protein-lined collagen casing or a beef bung (or even vacuum seal it). Traditionally, the culatella is cured in a pig’s bladder (use if you have access to one).
If natural casings are used, you will need to soak the casings in cold water for at least an hour, making sure to rinse and replace the water at least once halfway through. Open the casings underneath running water to rinse the insides. Natural casings are packed in salt, and your goal is to remove as much of the salt as possible.
If using a hog’s bladder (or if piecing together several casings to fit around the muscle), you will need to sew a seam to keep the casing shut. When doing this, keep the casing tight around the meat and push any air bubbles out so as not to trap them inside.
After you have encased your meat, prick holes all over with a sterilized needle. This will help to eliminate air pockets.
If using mold powder, dissolve in de-chlorinated water according to package instructions, and spray onto your meat. Mold will also help to regulate the drying of your meat and to inhibit growth of unhealthy mold.
Step 4: Tie the Meat
You will need a way to hang the meat. For small cuts that aren’t too heavy, you can thread butcher’s twine through the top corner of the meat and use this to hang in the Cave Aging Chamber. For larger cuts, you will need more support twine to hold up the weight of the meat. You can tie the butcher twine like a roast and then use this to hold up the meat while hanging:
- Make a square knot, looping the string around the first part of the knot three times.
- Create a loop with the string and slide it past the original knot, to create a continuous tie.
- Continue making loops, spacing them evenly across the meat.
- Thread the string across the back of the meat, and attach a loop at the top for hanging.
If hanging a ham, you may wrap several layers of cheesecloth (or a clean pillowcase) around the ham and tie a knot at the top with butcher’s twine from which to hang the meat.